During November 1996, in what must be the largest project of its kind in the Church's history, 250,000 Catholics in about 400 Australian parishes were asked to fill out one of four different survey forms distributed during Masses. This represented about one-third of the pollsters' estimate of 750,000 Australian Catholics at weekly Mass (about 15% of the total Catholic population).
Parts of the forms resembled a census return and the rest contained questions and statements of a religious nature, some of them specifically Catholic. No written responses were required; simply the circling of preferred alternatives.
The survey was described by its authors as a "Project of the Australian Bishops Conference in association with the National Church Life Survey". The first such survey, conducted in 1991, did not involve Catholics, but the Bishops Conference was approached for Catholic participation in the latest survey. Fr Michael Mason CSsR's role as "Project Sociologist" ensured that the Catholic leg of the survey would be run on professional lines.
The authors of the survey describe its basis as follows: "This research project is being undertaken so that the bishops can hear from the people. It's a time of continuing change in the Church, and we are facing many difficulties. The bishops want to make sure, as they make decisions for our whole Church, that they are more in touch with the feelings and attitudes and needs and hopes of ordinary folk. They are consulting Catholics of all ages to hear how they understand and experience their faith today; what they are doing to strengthen their parish communities. What are their difficulties? How can the Church serve them better?"
The survey's "primary aim" is identified as "a special kind of assistance" to participating parishes via a "Parish Vitality Project". This involves a "self-examination" enabling individual parishes to estimate their own relative effectiveness and also to benefit from other parishes identified as having particular strengths.
This writer's parish was one of those chosen for participation in the Ballarat Diocese. At each of the weekend Masses, members of the congregation (aged 15 and over) were asked to fill in one of four different forms - containing around 50-75 separate questions/statements. These were circulated and filled out during homily time with the whole exercise taking about 20 minutes.
No doubt much interesting and possibly useful information will be gleaned from this wide-ranging survey and one awaits with interest the published results which will no doubt eventually occupy a large sized book. But even more significant than the findings themselves will be how Church authorities respond to them.
The specifically Catholic questions/statements covered a wide variety of topics, some of which may well produce revealing answers, e.g., "Do you accept the authority of the Church to teach that certain doctrines of faith and morals are essential to faith, and are true, and to be believed by all Catholics"; or "Which of the following best sums up your attitude to the fact that the number of priests in Australia is decreasing?"; or "Do you approve of the Australian bishops making statements on public policy issues they see as involving principles of social justice, such as economic policy, immigration policy or land-rights for Aboriginal people?"
What follow-up is planned if it turns out that say only 5% of church-going Catholics accept Church authority as indicated above; or if only 5% believe that bishops should publish public policy statements?
Some of the older and/or more traditional parishioners may have been put out by having to respond to the following kinds of questions or statements, especially if the exercise was not explained clearly in advance:
Which of the following comes closest to what you believe about the Virgin Birth?
1. Mary gave birth to Jesus without having had sexual intercourse.
2. The Virginity of Mary is not meant to be taken literally; it is a way of saying that Jesus is both human and divine.
3. Jesus' conception was no different from any other human conception.
4. Don't know.
Which of the following statements about the consecrated bread and wine at Mass express your belief? (Circle All that apply).
The consecrated bread and wine:
1. Truly become the sacred Body and Blood of Christ.
2. Remain bread and wine.
3. Make present Christ's redemptive sacrifice for our participation.
4. Symbolise Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
5. Nourish us by our communion with Christ.
6. Can't decide/don't know.
The Church's teaching on and treatment of women is unjust: e.g., all-male authorities, ineligibility of women for ordination, etc. (Indicate a level of agreement/disagreement).
A number of other topics such as homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion, the authenticity of the Bible, inclusive language, etc, may likewise have raised a few eyebrows or caused some misunderstanding, especially among younger parishioners, viz, that the alternatives represent equally valid options of Catholic belief and practice.
And what strategies are in place should the Church's teachings on say abortion, contraception or premarital sex score very low percentages of support?
Indeed, a useful follow-up to the Catholic Church Life Survey (apart from what is planned via the Parish Vitality Project) might be to institute reliable programs of remedial catechesis in schools and parishes to accommodate any major gaps in belief and practice that the survey reveals. This would help justify whatever expenditure was involved in the project.